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Last Updated on January 25, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound is a four-act play that retells (and, in many ways, reconstructs) the classical myth of the Titan Prometheus. While traditional tellings frame Prometheus as a stalwart savior of humanity who is eventually forgiven by and reconciled with the gods who had forsaken him, Shelley chooses a different path. In his view, Prometheus is indeed mankind’s savior. However, Shelley sees his ultimate reconciliation with Jupiter, the very man who clapped him in chains, tortured him for eons, and permitted men—the fruit of Prometheus’s creation—to suffer unduly, as a ham-handed end to the titular character’s story. 

In Shelley’s eyes, Prometheus is the sole bastion of support upon which all of humanity leans: it is only his centuries-long intransigence that deters Jupiter from seizing complete control over all of creation. As such, the 1820 retelling veers from the classical version of the myth and recontextualizes it into a narrative of resistance better suited to the revolutionary spirits of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the preface, he writes about the changes he made to the myth and explains his reasoning:

But, in truth, I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the Champion with the Oppressor of mankind. The moral interest of the fable…would be annihilated if we could conceive of him as unsaying his high language and quailing before his successful and perfidious adversary. 

However, Shelley preserves the vast majority of Prometheus’s original mythological canon. His punishment is unchanged, as the first act, which details his torture, so heart-wrenchingly reveals: 

The crawling glaciers pierce me with the spears 

Of their moon-freezing crystals, the bright chains 

Eat with their burning cold into my bones. 

Heavdn's winged hound, polluting from thy lips

His beak in poison not his own, tears up

My heart; and shapeless sights come wandering by,

The ghastly people of the realm of dream,

Mocking me: and the Earthquake-fiends are charged

To wrench the rivets from my quivering wounds

When the rocks split and close again behind

Prometheus’s punishment—chained to a rock and forced to endure the daily agony of Jupiter’s eagle tearing his liver from his flesh—is rendered with exquisite care, turning the Titan’s suffering into a beauty to behold. Shelley’s descriptions of the resigned perpetuity, ceaseless changing of the seasons, and consistent familiarity of pain Prometheus experiences are vivid and empathy-inducing. His image of emotion is sensitive and compelling, as it is in the scene in which the Phantasm of Jupiter recalls Prometheus’s curses from centuries in the past: 

Fiend, I defy thee! with a calm, fixed mind. 

All that thou canst inflict I bid thee do;

Foul Tyrant both of Gods and Human-kind, 

One only being shalt thou not subdue.

Rain then thy plagues upon me here.

Ghastly disease, and frenzying fear;

And let alternate frost and fire

Eat into me, and be thine ire 

Lightning, and cutting hail, and legioned forms 

Of furies, driving by upon the wounding storms.

Aye, do thy worst. 

Thou art omnipotent. 

Over all things but thyself I gave thee power,

And my own will 

Prometheus’s rage is in part a response to the seemingly unending torment that awaits him; however, it is also in response to the infuriating reality that the power Jupiter plies against him was granted by none other than Prometheus himself. It is by his writ that Jupiter rules; therefore, it is by his writ that Jupiter oppresses man and tortures their savior. This, Shelley explains, is the agonizing irony of power: those with power have not earned it; instead, it has been given with the unsatisfied expectation of fair treatment and equality.

Then Prometheus gave wisdom, which is strength, to Jupiter, 

And, with this law alone, 

‘Let man be free,’

Clothed him with the dominion of wide Heaven, 

To know nor faith, nor love, nor law; to be

Omnipotent but friendless is to reign;

And Jove now reigned; for on the race of man 

First famine, and then toil, and then disease, 

Strife, wounds, and ghastly death unseen before. 

Indeed, power is reliant on those it oppresses. In Jupiter’s case, his rule is contingent on the subservience of man and on the willingness of Prometheus to tell him of the prophecy that foretells his downfall. Despite being King of the Gods, Jupiter’s power is rooted in the willing subservience of his subjects; when that subservience is broken, as it is in the case of Prometheus, the certainty of his control is lost, and his grasp on power becomes unstable. Prometheus’s quiet act of resistance is a devastating blow to Jupiter, as Asia notes, asking the Demogorgon:


Not Jupiter; while yet his frown shook heaven, aye, when 

His adversary from adamantine chains 

Cursed him, he trembled like a slave.

Declare who is his master? Is he too a slave?



All spirits are enslaved which serve things evil: 

Thou knowest if Jupiter be such or no.

In this scene, Shelley argues that power is not necessarily as clear-cut as might be expected. The lines of slave and master blur, leaving only a haze of moral certainty in their wake. It is not important, at this moment, who is in control; instead, it is only good that matters. Only those virtuous few are free. All else—even kings and gods—are slaves. This point is furthered in the next act, as the Demogorgon travels to Olympus and casts Jupiter into Tartarus as punishment for his evil ways. He reprises a cycle of the son overthrowing the father, crying out: 

Eternity. Demand no direr name.

Descend, and follow me down the abyss.

I am, thy child, as thou wert Saturn's child;

Mightier than thee: and we must dwell together

Henceforth in darkness. 

After Jupiter’s banishment, freedom rings. Prometheus sheds his chains, and Love returns to the world. The end of divine oppression marks a change in the world, and the effects are immediately obvious. In the final scene, the Demogorgon speaks, summing up these changes and promising their continuation across time:

This is the day, which down the void abysm

At the Earth-borns spell yawns for Heaven's despotism.

And Conquest is dragged captive through the deep: 

Love, from its awful throne of patient power

In the wise heart, from the last giddy hour

Of dead endurance, from the slippery, steep, 

And narrow verge of crag-like agony, springs 

And folds over the world its healing wings.

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